Arab Nations Seek to Bring Syria In From the Cold Amid Broad Middle East Realignment

Arab nations that once shunned Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are offering him a deal that would restore ties between Damascus and much of the Middle East while potentially curbing the influence of Iran, according to Arab and European officials.
In talks initially led by Jordan, Arab nations have proposed aid worth billions of dollars to help rebuild Syria after the country’s 12-year civil war and have pledged to lobby the U.S. and European powers to lift sanctions on Mr. Assad’s government, the officials said. In exchange, Mr. Assad would engage with the Syrian political opposition, accept Arab troops to protect returning refugees, crack down on illicit drug smuggling and ask Iran to stop expanding its footprint in the nation, the officials said.
The talks are at an early stage, and Mr. Assad has shown no interest in political reform or a willingness to welcome Arab troops, said an adviser to the Syrian government, Arab officials and European officials familiar with the talks. In addition, Western powers have shown no inclination to end stringent sanctions over Syria’s human-rights violations.
But the devastating earthquakes that struck Turkey and Syria, killing 6,000 in Syria, have given the talks momentum as Mr. Assad seeks to capitalize on the humanitarian disaster to reduce his isolation, these people said.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad met U.A.E. President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan in Abu Dhabi last year.PHOTO: UNCREDITED/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Adding firepower to the talks is the backing of Saudi Arabia, the most powerful Arab state and among those who have resisted rapprochement with Mr. Assad the most fiercely, the officials said. Last month, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan called for an end to the status quo over Syria to allow a response to its long-term humanitarian crisis.
Saudi Arabia recently agreed to restore ties with Iran in a China-brokered deal, suggesting that the kingdom is open to a change of course in the region’s geopolitical alignment. A detente around Mr. Assad would be one of the boldest examples of a broad realignment under way in the Middle East, as tensions that emerged from the Arab Spring dissipate and the interests of foreign powers in the region shift.
Arab neighbors have been slowly rebuilding ties with Syria for several years, as Mr. Assad, with the help of Russia and Iran, beat back rebels who nearly toppled him. The Assad government now controls much of the country, with the exception of a swath of Kurdish-controlled northeast territory and the last rebel-held territory in the northwest province of Idlib.
Russia and Iran remain key partners to the regime. Mr. Assad arrived in Moscow on Wednesday to hold talks with President Vladimir Putin aimed at developing trade and humanitarian cooperation between the two countries.
The Arab League, a group of 22 nations, suspended Syria’s membership in 2011 and imposed sanctions over Mr. Assad’s brutal crackdown on protests that began during the Arab Spring uprising and soon transformed into an armed resistance. The U.S. and Europe have also imposed stringent sanctions on the Syrian government and companies connected to the Assad family.
Now, the possible reintegration of Syria into the broader region and its reconstruction will be on the agenda of the next Arab League summit later this year in Saudi Arabia, according to European and Arab officials.
While many Arab officials remain disdainful of Mr. Assad and his actions, they say international policies isolating Syria are proving to be counterproductive over time, strengthening Iran’s influence in the region.
Better ties with Mr. Assad would help reduce Iran’s influence on one its key allies in the region, say people familiar with the thinking of some of the Arab states.
In recent weeks, Jordan and Egypt have sent their foreign ministers to Damascus for their first diplomatic visits since the civil war erupted in 2011.
In particular, the United Arab Emirates has made bringing Mr. Assad back into the Arab fold a priority. U.A.E. President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan hosted the Syrian leader in Abu Dhabi last year and Emirati companies are testing the waters of doing business there.
The U.A.E. sees an “urgent need to strengthen the Arab role in Syria,” an Emirati official said in response to questions sent to the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “The search for a political solution to the crisis in Syria must be accelerated to avoid the resurgence of terrorism and extremism, which have proliferated throughout the ongoing conflict in Syria.”
Convincing the U.S. and Europe to lift sanctions on Mr. Assad and his associates won’t be easy for Arab countries, even for those who are strong U.S. allies.
A State Department spokesperson said its Syria sanctions “have longstanding authorizations that allow for humanitarian assistance.”
“Our focus at this time of crises remains on saving lives and helping the Syrian people recover from the earthquake, and we encourage our regional partners to take the same approach,” the spokesperson said.
Immediately after the earthquakes last month, State Department spokesman Ned Price said, “We would encourage normalization” only if the Assad regime fulfills a road map toward free elections.
The EU remains concerned about Mr. Assad’s human-rights record and his unwillingness to hold free elections, and has ruled out inviting the Syrian government for a donors’ conference, due in the coming months, to rebuild areas hit by the disaster, European officials said.
The U.S. and Europe allowed broad humanitarian exemptions to sanctions to open a path for earthquake aid to northwestern Syria. But they say the quakes shouldn’t be a pretext for a radical shift in policy on a dictator widely seen as responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Syrians, including from chemical weapons.
The opposition extends to Arab countries such as Qatar, Kuwait and Morocco, which haven’t sent aid to regime-held territories.
Securing diplomatic recognition, and economic assistance is urgent for Mr. Assad, who is facing a collapsing economy at home.
On Feb. 6, just hours after the quakes, Mr. Assad’s communications adviser Bouthaina Shaaban told foreign and health ministry officials to capitalize on the sympathy generated by the disaster to lobby international opinion to end sanctions and use aid to tighten ties with Arab nations, notably Saudi Arabia which has so far resisted any formal rapprochement with the regime, said an adviser to the Assad government and a European official.
The message was to maximize the utilization of the crisis, these people said.
On Feb. 12, Emirati Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed asked Mr. Assad to allow humanitarian aid to travel into rebel-held territory from regime-held areas, said European and Arab officials and Syrian government advisers.
The Emiratis saw the move as a way for Mr. Assad to improve his international standing, said European officials and Syrian government advisers. Mr. Assad allowed the aid in, but the rebel-held area didn’t take the aid for fear it would be used for Damascus’s propaganda.
On Feb. 20, Mr. Assad flew to Oman to meet Sultan Haitham bin Tariq. He asked the Sultan to lobby Western nations to temporarily lift sanctions in return for keeping crossings into rebel areas open, said European and Persian Gulf officials.
He also asked the Sultan to mediate between Saudi Arabia and Iran to broker an understanding that Tehran would agree that Riyadh would have an economic presence in Syria, said a European official and a Syrian government adviser.
The Omani Ministry of Foreign Affairs didn’t return a request for comment.
Cash-strapped Iran, which has been forced to cut off fuel and medical deliveries to Syria, has so far welcomed the Arab rapprochement but has shown no sign of reducing its military presence. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani called progress between Syria and the Arab world “a realistic approach” and “a positive step toward Islamic solidarity.”
Mr. Assad has some leverage in negotiations seeking financial assistance from Arab countries because Syria is the main producer and trafficker of an illicit, addictive narcotic called captagon that has become the Middle East’s drug of choice. The drug is a $10 billion industry in Syria and is now the country’s top export.
Officials from Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E. and Jordan have raised the issue of captagon in contacts with their Syrian counterparts before the earthquake, say European and Middle East officials.
The Jordanian and the Syrian ministries of foreign affairs and the Syrian presidential office didn’t return requests for comment.

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